The Road to the Court. (Cases, Controversy, and the Court)

By Arbetman, Lee | Social Education, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

The Road to the Court. (Cases, Controversy, and the Court)


Arbetman, Lee, Social Education


TEXTBOOK COVERAGE of U.S. Supreme Court decisions tends to focus almost exclusively on the decision in specific cases. There is seldom consideration of the factual settings in which those cases arose or the lower court decisions that led to the High Court. In addition, how the Court decides which eases to hear receives little attention. Using Good News Club v. Milford Central School, a case involving religion in the public schools from the Court's 2000-01 term, this article will map out the road to the Supreme Court.

The Place

Just over one hour west of Albany, New York, in a rural farming area, lies the tiny village of Milford. The town is so small that its students attend a single K-12 school: an unlikely place, one would think, to spawn a major church-state conflict that reached the U.S. Supreme Court during the 2000-01 term.

The Club

More than 3,200 Good News Clubs exist throughout the country. One of them is in Milford. These clubs are nondenominational organizations open to children six to twelve years of age. Good News Clubs provide instruction in morals and family values from a Christian perspective. The clubs are affiliated with the Child Evangelical Fellowship, a missionary organization. (1)

Milford's dub, which had about twenty members, met weekly for an hour. The typical meeting included an opening prayer, the singing of Christian songs, memorization and recitation of passages from the Bible, and a dosing prayer. Since 1995, the club had met after school at the Milford Center Community Bible Church. Milford's K-12 school initially provided bus transportation for some of the students who attended the club's meetings. In fall 1996, the school stopped providing transportation, which meant that some students could not attend meetings. After attendance dropped, the club submitted a formal request to use the school's cafeteria from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. to conduct its weekly meetings.

The School's Policy

New York State's education law provides for the public use of schools and school grounds and also authorizes local school boards to adopt reasonable regulations for the use of school facilities. (2) Milford's Community Use of Facilities Policy, adopted by the school board in August 1992, allowed the use of the school building for instruction in education and arts and for civic, social, and recreational meetings for the general welfare of the community. The policy prohibited school use for religious purposes, such as holding worship services, to avoid the appearance of, and possible divisiveness caused by, the government's sponsorship of religious activity.

The Law

This tension caused by the conflict between a religious group's request to use a government facility (raising a possible violation of the Establishment Clause) and the government's decision not to allow the group to use it (raising a possible violation of the Free Speech Clause) has been at the heart of other court cases.

Prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions recognize that public property can be characterized for First Amendment purposes in one of three ways: as public forums, as limited public forums, and as nonpublic forums. A public forum is a place, such as a park or street, traditionally open to or designated for public expression. When the government tries to regulate speech in a public forum, the regulation must serve an important governmental interest (e.g., limiting noise in a hospital zone). Regulations of speech in nonpublic forums are upheld by the courts as long as they are reasonable (this standard is easier to meet in court than proving an important government interest). Sometimes the government will take a nonpublic forum and open it up for limited use. This creates a limited public forum. Regulations, once again, must be reasonable. Regulations for public, nonpublic, and limited public forums must be viewpoint neutral. This means that the government cannot promote or censor particular points of view. …

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